There is a strong chance that cinemagoers in the New Year are on their way to watch the well-reviewed Dune, an almost biblical tale — partly filmed in Abu Dhabi — about how the race to technology and modernity ends up plunging good people into a quest for desperate, basic survival and freedom. It is a sci-fi classic, so hard to encapsulate that it inspired an award-winning documentary about the impossibility of turning the original book into a film. But, ultimately, the ideas are very simple: in the rush for technological progress, people should be careful about the damage they are doing to the physical, political and moral world.
The potential, serious threat posed by technology, AI and digital security is also highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) "Global Risks Report 2022", a document grounded not in sci-fi and drama, but the most likely scenarios of future threats that society faces. For the past 17 years, the report has used its “Global Risks Perception Survey” involving nearly 1,000 experts and leaders, to gather insights on these threats. They are alarmingly downbeat this year; only 16 per cent feel optimistic about the future.
For now, the report’s primary warnings are far more basic than a high-tech future gone awry. The real driver of the most likely future crises is Covid-19 and its fallout, particularly its creation of a “divergent economic recovery”.
The trend is already underway. Developing countries are being robbed of pre-pandemic expected levels of GDP growth. By 2024, rates will have fallen by 5.5 per cent, apart from in China. Richer countries, however, will see an average growth of 1 per cent. Looming debt crises are another concern.
On a practical level, this spells disaster for dealing with other threats the world faces in 2022 and beyond, all of which require a response based on global solidarity, a sentiment that has been dashed by, among others, ongoing vaccine inequality.
By far the most threatening issue in this regard is the climate crisis. The survey ranks risks by the period in which they are thought to become a “critical threat to the world”, in periods of 0-2 years, 2-5 years and 5-10 years. In all three categories, either extreme weather, climate action failure or biodiversity loss take at least two of the top three slots. In 5-10 years, the top five threats will all be environmental.
A particularly important angle that the report is tackling, one which is only recently being used as an important measure of global stability and prosperity, is the role of mental health, which is listed as the fourth biggest risk that worsened most since the start of the pandemic. This ties into the fastest growing threat over the past two years, “social cohesion erosion”, something that WEF fears will lead to ineffective policymaking and growing international rivalries when solidarity is most needed.
Where to find solutions among these depressing projections? Longstanding moral ideals of partnership, charity, tolerance and dialogue of course should play their part. After the pandemic, the world has another weapon: resilience through technology. Thanks to huge advances, vaccine science will never be the same again, nor will the world of work, education and medicine.
The world must acknowledge the rapidly deteriorating situation outlined by WEF. It must also not lose hope, and countries must collaborate on solutions. Matching the huge promise of technological and scientific progress with old standards of morality can confine the bleak world of Dune to the sci-fi genre. Let’s just hope that advances are distributed equitably. So far, that endeavour has faltered.